John McPhee began as a staff writer at The New Yorker during the William Shawn years, and during the forty-five years of his association with that magazine has become famous for his clean, economical prose. In a recent interview with the Paris Review, McPhee describes the process of writing non-fiction as one of gathering your material, and then trying to “tell it as a story in a way that doesn’t violate fact, but at the same time is structured and presented in a way that makes it interesting to read.” It sounds so simple.
Silk Parachute (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is McPhee’s most recent collection of essays, all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. A few of the essays are purely personal (the title essay recalls a treasured plaything from his boyhood; another describes an incident with a canoe at the age of twelve); others are more broadly rooted in the world (“Spin Right and Shoot Left,” a lengthy look at the game of lacrosse; “Season on the Chalk,” an exploration of “the massive chalk of Europe”; and one of my favourites in the collection: “Checkpoints,” an affectionate description of the legendary fact-checking department at The New Yorker).
All of the essays demonstrate McPhee’s trademark ability to make any topic—no matter how obscure—absorbing.